IT is often said of great fighting men that they do not know when they are beaten. The phrase is perhaps more truly applicable, in all its implications of courage and tenacity, to Major William George Barker, of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, and later of the Royal Flying Corps, than to any other pilot.
WILLIAM GEORGE BARKER, V.C. M.C., was a fighter who would never give in no matter what the odds were against him. In one fight he fainted from the effects of a wound, but he recovered after having fallen 12,000 feet and continued to fight. He was killed 1930 in a commercial aeroplane accident at Ottawa, Canada.
Barker fought his last and greatest air battle in a manner which marked him as one of those who will never give in, no matter what the odds. He met and countered attack after attack by immensely superior numbers. He fought furiously even while gravely wounded. He returned to the battle after having fainted and fallen out of control for 12,000 feet. At last, when on the point of going into a second faint from pain and loss of blood, he tried to ram one of the enemy machines.
This combat, at the close of a long fighting career, won for Barker the Victoria Cross and brought the number of his victories up to fifty-two. He survived his wounds and was brought back to health by hospital treatment which lasted many months and included some twenty separate operations; yet he was eventually killed in an aeroplane. On March 12, 1930, Barker, who had by then been given the rank of wing commander, lost his life flying at Ottawa, Canada, when a commercial aeroplane crashed.
Barker fought his last and greatest fight in a Sopwith Snipe. At the time he was not, strictly speaking, on the strength of the British Forces in France and Flanders. He was attached to No. 201 Squadron for a refresher course. On the morning of October 27, 1918, he was out in his Snipe when he saw an enemy two-seater at 21,000 feet over the Foret de Mormal, near Valenciennes, France. He shot this down, and was than attacked from below by a Fokker.
One of the Fokker’s first bursts wounded Barker in the right thigh. He fell into a spin from which he pulled out in the middle of a formation of about fifteen Fokkers. At once he attacked and drove two down, though whether these were crashed was never known. The third he attacked at point-blank range and it went down in flames.
An enemy bullet now hit him in the left thigh. He momentarily lost consciousness and was attacked by about twelve enemy aircraft, to manoeuvre into position on the tail of one of them and shot it down from a range estimated at less than five yards. It was then that he received a third wound; the bullet shattered his left elbow.
This time he completely lost consciousness and his Snipe fell 12,000 feet. After he had recovered he was attacked by another large enemy formation. Smoke now began to pour from his own machine and he believed that it had caught fire. In a final desperate and heroic effort he turned the machine at the nearest Fokker and tried to ram it. But, before he hit it, his guns took effect and the Fokker fell in flames. Barker then tried to escape, but found his retreat cut off by eight enemy aircraft. He contrived, by firing bursts when he could, to shake them off and to cross the lines a few feet above the ground. He finally crashed close to one of the British balloons.
Barker had made his name as a fighting pilot before this amazing combat. Indeed, he had begun to distinguish himself when he had been acting as an observer on artillery observation duties. It was at this time that he received his first decoration, the Military Cross.
On the Austrian front, according to the story which circulated in the Royal Flying Corps at the time, Barker determined to attack enemy balloons. He shot one down, but never attacked another afterwards. It was said that the reason he gave was that the two members of the crew of the balloon leaped out by parachute, and were coming down in this way when the blazing envelope of their balloon fell on top of them. To Barker’s way of thinking this was a tragedy for which he was responsible, and it seemed to him that he had been attacking defenceless people. At any rate, he did not later attack balloons.
After the war and when he had recovered from his wounds, Barker preached the importance of aviation from the point of view of national safety. “The only effective defence Great Britain have,” he wrote in 1925, “is an Air Force of at least a one-power standard. The Royal Navy and the Army would only be able to assist ... by supplying anti-aircraft gun fire.”
Barker thus showed that he was not only a first-class fighting man, but also a man of foresight and understanding, and that with his supreme courage there went a keen intelligence.